Ever since the moment in "Bottle Rocket" (1996) when Luke Wilson's character paused during a robbery of his own boyhood home to straighten a toy soldier on a bedroom shelf, writer-director Wes Anderson announced his intentions as an artist of serenely extreme exactitude.
This is a filmmaker, working in varying degrees of visual stylization, who operates within precise notions of how the universe of his imagining will proceed in terms of story and how his characters will operate within that universe, one carefully composed shot at a time.
Anderson's newest film is many things. "The Grand Budapest Hotel" qualifies as his most exotically remote achievement in terms of locale; most of it takes place in a fictitious Eastern European province in the early 1930s.
It's also one of Anderson's cleverest and most gorgeous movies, dipping just enough of a toe in the real world — and in the melancholy works of its acknowledged inspiration, the late Austrian writer Stefan Zweig — to prevent the whole thing from floating off into the ether of minor whimsy. I would call "The Grand Budapest Hotel" major whimsy. It's a confection with bite, featuring an ensemble led by the invaluable Ralph Fiennes, here allowed to exercise his farceur's wiles.
Anyone who dares to call Anderson's work actor-proof would do well to imagine this film with an inferior or ham-fisted performance at its center. Even when the dialogue slips into jokey anachronisms or less-than-sparkling repartee, Fiennes' portrayal of M. Gustave, the finest hotel concierge known to humankind, lends an exceptional deftness to the results.
Anderson treats the ravages of the 20th century as a series of echoes through time. The movie begins in the late 1970s, with an unnamed author (Tom Wilkinson) taping an interview and relaying the story of his book about a certain, now-vanished hotel in a spa town high in the mountains. Zwoop, and we're back to the 1960s, when the same writer (now played by Jude Law) arrives at the Grand Budapest in its fading communist era of disrepair.
At the hotel the writer meets the owner, played by F. Murray Abraham, who relates the improbable tale of how he came to own the Grand Budapest and how he started out decades earlier as a lobby boy. Anderson, who co-wrote the story with Hugo Guinness, skips back and forth in "The Grand Budapest Hotel," but mainly we're in 1932, in the palace's heyday, between the wars. The plot — and there's a lot of it — concerns the death of one of the concierge's aged lovers (Tilda Swinton, giving Wendy Hiller's turn in "Murder on the Orient Express" a run for her money). She has left to M. Gustave a priceless painting, which her greedy heirs want very badly.
From there, Anderson treats the events as eccentric, elaborate moves on a chessboard, not in fast-motion, exactly, but with each development (Gustave's time in prison; his breakout; the young lobby boy's romance with the hotel baker) a part of an increasingly threatening game. With his quick smile and avid expression of never missing a trick, Fiennes keeps the top spinning. He resembles, deliberately, the real-life Viennese dandy and public figure Zweig, who was born in 1881 and committed suicide with his wife while in Brazilian exile in 1942.
In Zweig's autobiography "The World of Yesterday" he writes about the "hermetic isolation" of the exile's life, moving here and settling there, always amid a "smouldering uneasiness." "The Grand Budapest Hotel" concerns, among others, the lobby boy, Zero, played by newcomer Tony Revolori. Like Zweig, he is a refugee. Saoirse Ronan is Zero's beloved, Agatha; the rest of the cast is so rich in talent, it'd take a few paragraphs to include all the worthy supporting turns, each speaking in a differently accented English, ranging from Harvey Keitel's Brooklynese convict to Edward Norton's officious police chief, a storm trooper in sheep's clothing outfitted with a mustache borrowed from Adolphe Menjou.
Anderson is attempting a tricky magic act here. His made-up land of Zubrowka, which happens also to be a brand of Polish vodka, draws upon the sort of Mittel-European never-never-land atmospherics favored by the early Ernst Lubitsch. (The name of the local paper: The Trans-Alpine Yodel.) But we're also dealing with encroaching fascism, even if nobody speaks of Nazis in "The Grand Budapest Hotel." Some of the violence is jarring, particularly a scene in which Willem Dafoe's rotten-toothed henchman stalks a lawyer played by Jeff Goldblum in and around the local art museum. The visualization of the sequence pulls elements from a similar scene in Alfred Hitchcock's "Torn Curtain." Other shots, those of death squads as seen from the inside of a train, are reminiscent of earlier Hitchcock films from his between-the-wars British period, particularly "Sabotage."
Throughout, Anderson revels in the mechanics and the delightful fakery of moviemaking illusions gone by. The scenes set aboard the funicular railway resemble the climax of Carol Reed's "Night Train to Munich." A frenzied chase on skis, blending stop-motion animation and miniatures, is breathlessly funny, like one of the action scenes in Anderson's own "Fantastic Mr. Fox." Each of the time frames within the film is treated to its own aspect ratio: The '30s scenes are framed in boxy, old-school 1.37:1, while the gone-to-seed '60s passages are shown in widescreen 2.40:1. The '70s bits, bookending the other parts, are shot in 1.85:1. Anderson and cinematographer Robert Yeoman manage these shifts elegantly.
Sometimes the frivolity feels misplaced. But it's something of a miracle this obsessively diagramed project has a human pulse of any kind. It's getting at the seriousness of its themes by way of the back door, or the servant's entrance. The actors give the brittle material life, mostly comic but dramatic when needed. The familiar pictorial techniques — the swish pans, pivoting 90 or 180 degrees, capturing in a single shot action, reaction and reaction to the reaction — are present and accounted for. The dolly shots, intricate but not ostentatious, sweep us into the world of M. Gustave's domain.
Time may reorder his latest in my affections, and I don't love or even like all of Anderson's eight features, certainly not in the same way. But "The Grand Budapest Hotel" may be his best since "Rushmore." It's a mirage of what was. In Zweig's posthumously published "Chess Story," he told a story of a chess master dedicating himself to a monomaniacal pursuit. "The more one limits oneself, the closer one is to the infinite," Zweig wrote. "These people, as unworldly as they seem, burrow like termites into their own particular material to construct, in miniature, a strange and utterly individual image of the world." He could've been writing about Wes Anderson.
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" - 3 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for language, some sexual content and violence)
Running time: 1:40
Opens: FridayCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun